By Bread Alone (Short Story)

She scrubbed underneath each fingernail with a small toothbrush she kept in the shower for this purpose. A couple of the nails were peeling off in layers and she stared at the rough edges disdainfully. She rinsed her hair again, then once more before shutting off the tap.

A vague layer of dirt remained in the textured part of the shower floor. She had scrubbed this before the shower but, it was not completely gone. She stepped out and drenched it in a layer of bleach, and, still naked and dripping, got down on her hands and knees to scrub at it with the toothbrush. It gave slightly, sections lightening to a glistening white, but other sections remained a stubborn greyish brown.

By the time she had surrendered to the remnants of grime that would not yield, she had nearly dripped dry, leaving a large puddle in front of the shower door. She squeezed out her hair with the towel quickly and threw it down on the puddle, a sense of urgency returning.

In the closet, a line of empty hangers was interspersed with a few articles of seldom-worn clothing. Below these, a mass of clothes, mostly clean, a few forgotten pairs of dirty underwear or socks. She rummaged, selecting underwear, a bra, socks, blouse, pants.

Dressed, she sat at her desk, thinking to do some work first thing. She began to assess the situation left from the night before. A notebook contained a to do list of tasks that needed doing. The phone blinked with text messages. The laptop’s icons were red with emails. An unfinished project from the night before remained open on the desktop screen. Letters were stuffed into a drawer—bills, voter registration, coupons, late fee notices, policy change notices, birthday cards. In the other drawer pens were color coded and sorted by nib size.

The alarm clock started beeping from the bedside table, had she set a second alarm? She got up to turn it off, then went back to the closet. This outfit didn’t feel quite right. The shirt was itchy, the pants a bit too tight. She changed into new of both, then changed the shirt a second time. That was better. The alarm had started going off again, she’d accidentally hit the “snooze” button instead of the “off” button.

Coffee. She weighed out the beans from the canister and ground them up, started the machine, retrieved a protein bar. She chewed it slowly, not tasting a thing, and began scrolling through text messages.

The doorbell rang. She did not answer it, but sat quietly at the small table in the kitchen, waiting for whoever it was to go away. When a sufficient amount of time had passed, she approached the door and opened it a crack to peer outside.

A bouquet of flowers had been left on her door mat. They were daisies. Daisies were her favorite.

She stepped out of the apartment door, and, peering left and right down the hallway, looked for a sign of who had left them. She’d only been in the city for six months. She worked from home and seldom left. She’d yet to make any friends save the owner of the grocery store across the street, who had admired her Southern accent. All they’d ever talked about was the scarcity of quality sweet tea anywhere above Kentucky. They’d never spoken about flowers.

Seeing no sign of human life, she brought the flowers inside and shut the door again. She locked it on instinct, then turned around a moment later to ensure it was still locked. The flowers were not wrapped in plastic as bouquets usually are, but were merely fastened together with a bit of twine. She laid them gingerly in the sink and began hunting for something that would serve as a vase.

She finally settled on a large mason jar she’d been using to store dry black beans. She emptied the beans into a plastic bag, filled the jar with water, trimmed the stems under running water, and placed the flowers into the makeshift vase.

Adorned with flowers, the small, scratched old kitchen table had a kind of noble dignity to it. She poured the coffee and sat down to admire them. A siren sounded outside, blaringly loud, and her body tensed a moment, as all bodies do when confronted with a sound engineered to rouse. She relaxed again as the sound faded into the distance, and her attention was drawn back to the flowers.

She touched the silky petals, the waxy stems. She breathed the scent of them. She’d never really understood why people thought the smell of flowers was so pleasant. It wasn’t pleasant in the way that a candle was pleasant. But it was a smell more like grass or dirt or hay—simple, uncomplicated, so in a way it was enjoyable.

Above her, as she sat, the kitchen light burned out. It was very early still, only 5:47, but the sky was light and the kitchen sighed into a soft blue. She watched the flowers for a long time, until the light of the sun lifted above the lip of the windowsill and the white petals glowed golden. She felt that she was waiting for something to happen, though she’d no idea what. Then the yellow gold transformed into a burning amber, and the light reached out from the tip of the flower’s petal and spread into her body, until she was filled with a piercing warmth.

Her cellphone rang, and she answered on impulse. “Hello?”

“Hey, good morning Jill, just wanted to get your input on this meeting agenda. Did you see my email?”

“Oh, yes,” she cleared her throat, “I mean, no, I haven’t gotten a chance yet. Let me take a look and I’ll get back to you in a few, okay?”

“Sounds good, just add anything you need to cover. I’ll see you at the video conference.”

“Yes, alright.”

She moved with her cup of coffee, still three-quarters full and now stone cold, back to her desk. She did not spare a glance backward as she brought up the document on the large black screen and began to pour over it. She did not feel the wetness in the corners of her eyes that slowly seeped out onto her eyelashes and dried there.

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